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Apple offers up evolutionary iPod updates, Jobs at music event

Today’s 9/9/9 Apple event was surprisingly light on surprises. Steve Jobs returned to the stage after almost a year’s absence and got a nice standing ovation. But Apple’s announcements were mostly lukewarm, and had been telegraphed weeks in advance. Among the key announcements are:

Big numbers. Apple highlighted why the company is desperately in need of antirust oversight. It has sold over 30 million iPhones in two years. It’s users have downloaded 1.8 billion apps from the iPhone Apps Store. It’s iTunes Store is the number one music retailer in the world. Apple has sold over 8.5 billion songs. It has over 100,000,000 users who have provided the company with their credit card numbers. Apple has sold over 225 million iPods (including over 20 million iPod touches and 100 million iPod nanos) and has 74 percent market share. This is all simply amazing stuff.

iPhone 3.1 firmware. A free incremental update for all iPhone models (and, I believe, all iPod Touch models), iPhone 3.1 appears to deliver some nice features across the board. I’m surprised Apple didn’t call it “iPhone’s Snow Leopard.” The addition of 30,000 ringtones at $1.29 a pop doesn’t do much for me, but could be a big deal for many.

iTunes 9 for PC/Mac. Anyone hoping for a sweeping overhaul of the bloated and slow iTunes application will be disappointed, but iTunes 9 does have some interesting new features, including an improved Genius, much better content syncing (a huge weakness previously), and a neat visual way to sync the layout of app icons on the iPhone screen using iTunes. Best of all, though is a new PC-to-PC content sharing feature that appears to be modeled on Windows 7’s HomeGroup functionality (albeit with old-school-style logons). I’m eager to see that in action. And the iTunes Store has gotten a much needed makeover, with some interesting Zune-like Artists and content pages. An iTunes LP feature combines a digital album with other rich content, but I’m not sure how valuable this really is: Who listens to music while staring at the iTunes PC app?

iPod touch. The late 2009 iPod touch devices are mostly simple upgrades of last year’s models, with the same form factor and underlying hardware (except for the 32 and 64 GB units, apparently, which have the faster, 3GS-style underpinnings). (Apple made an interesting point about iPod touch gaming, though it’s unrelated to new models: It already has far more games than do the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, and those games are far less expensive. This makes the iPod touch/iPhone platform far more valuable.) Prices are down and capacities are up, as you expect: $199 for 8 GB, $229 for 16 GB, $299 for 32 GB, 64 GB for $399. (Note again that the 32 & 64 GB models have the faster processor and OpenGL|ES capabilities.) Note: Originally, I had written that only the 64 GB version had the more advanced hardware.

iPod classic. Curiously, Apple is keeping the iPod classic but not providing any notable updates. It still costs $249 but the HDD goes from 120 GB to 160 GB.

iPod shuffle. The ridiculous iPod shuffle continues forward, but Apple has finally done the obvious: They’re making an adapter so you can use any headphones you want. Duh. Prices are down, capacities are up: $59 for 2 GB, $79 for 4 GB, and $99 for 4GB “Special Edition.” There are new colors.

iPod nano. As we’ve known for weeks, the iPod nano picks up a video camera, microphone, and speaker. It’s also getting CoverFlow and, like the Zune from three years ago, an FM radio. Pricing: $149 for 8 GB and $179 for 16 GB.

What wasn’t discussed. Apple completely ignored the Apple TV, again. There was no discussion of a much-rumored Apple tablet. No Beatles catalog on iTunes. No truly new hardware or software.

I’ll need to watch the streaming version of the event, but for now, I don’t see anything hugely dramatic. I’ll provide write-ups for iTunes 9, the iPod touch, and iPod nano next week.

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